It’s been donkey’s years since I last saw the Great British Brodsky Quartet. In fact my guess is there has been a couple of line up changes since then, though Ian Belton on violin and Jacqueline Thomas on cello remain from the original founders in 1972, now joined by Daniel Rowland’s violin and Paul Cassidy’s viola. There were famous back in the day for me and my punky mates because they got involved with pop/rock types. They have never lost the spirit of adventure as this programme plainly shows. The centenary of the end of WWI has seen a lot of fine concerts: this idiosyncratic alternative was one of the best.
Now the main reason to turn up here was not, for once, Shostakovich’s No 8. Mind you that would have been worth the entrance money alone. Having heard a sophisticated, smooth version of DSCH’s quartet masterpiece from the Emersons a couple of weeks earlier, it was exhilarating to hear this much darker, plaintive alternative. This really got inside the meaning of the score, dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and War” in a way that the Emerson Quartet only hinted at. The two outer Largo C minor movements, with their famous DSCH musical monograms, were grimly intense here, the second movement scherzo fugue ferociously pungent and the middle movement waltz bitterly sardonic, on the edge of giving up. The slower fourth movement was here properly, brutally, dissonant with the KGB not just at the door as DSCH remarked, but inside the flat rifling through possessions. This is exactly what the Eighth should sound like, vibrato when vibrato, forte when forte, pianissimo when pianissimo.
Yet like I say this was not the main attraction nor war it the highlight of the evening. That was reserved for George’s Crumb’s Black Angels. It was written in 1973 as a response to the Vietnam War. It is scored for “electric string quartet” and includes a magic box of percussive and other effects, including vocals, and even featuring crystal wine glasses. Subtitled “Thirteen images from the dark land” and inscribed “in time of war”, it is, by turns, startling, frightening, menacing, ritualistic, elegiac, ethereal, mysterious, very loud and very soft. It is divided into three sections, Departure, Absence and Return each of which contains a painful threnody. There are baroque dances buried in here, but don’t expect Lully or Telemann. And then there is just noise. I haven’t the faintest idea how to convey the sheer breadth of its sound world and depth of its emotion. I suggest you go listen to it and see what you think. Probably best not, as the Brodsky’s refrained from doing here. amplify the music to the “threshold of pain” as Crumb instructed. Though it might have been interesting to observe the reaction of the Kings Place crowd to a heyday My Bloody Valentine take on Black Angels. GC is near 90 years old now but I bet he would still turn the dial up to 11.
Black Angels has rightly secured a pre-eminent place in the modern string quartet repertoire, but it isn’t easy, so fortunately, here, we were in the hands of experts. It is probably the best half hour or so of “music” I have heard this year.
The Karen Tanaka piece was commissioned by the Brodskys to mark the bicentenary of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets and takes the first few bars of No as its inspiration. Interesting if not memorable. Erwin Schulhoff’s upbeat first quartet, with its mix of Czech folk rhythms, Stravinskian jazz and agitated dance probably needs further investigation. He was born in Prague, and this piece was written in 1924 when he was 30 but 17 years later he died of TB in the Wulzburg concentration camp. The Dave Brubeck piece. originally composed for string orchestra in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, says it all in its title.
Marvellous stuff. Oh and I caught a glimpse of the score for Black Angels even from my back of the stalls perch. For George Crumb’s scores are almost as intriguing as the extended and innovative techniques in the music itself. The above is not from Black Angels but a moto perpetuo piano piece. Even so see what I mean?
London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Francois-Xavier Roth (conductor), Camilla Tilling, Adele Charvet, Julien Behr, Christopher Purves, William Thomas
Barbican Hall, 11th November 2018
Gyorgy Ligeti – Lontano
Bela Bartok – Cantata profana
Haydn – Nelson Mass
Three composers I like. Three works I did not know. A slightly earlier start. A fine end to a fine day.
When I say I don’t know Liget’s Lontano that isn’t strictly true. In fact, even if you are a Ligeti virgin, there is a fair chance you have heard Lontano. For this is the music famously used to signify Jack Nicholson’s descent into full-on barking psychomania in The Shining film. Lontano, along with Atmospheres, is therefore still probably Ligeti’s most famous work, even though, in the five decades that followed their composition, GL went on to explore many other styles and musical ideas.
Lontano, in Italian, means “far away” or “distant” as a performance instruction which about sums it up. For this is as “other worldly” as it gets, from a composer synonymous with the term. It is built up from layers of very quiet sound, initially cellos and flutes, from the smallish orchestra. These lines move in different tempos and to different rhythms but they combine, legato, to create Ligeti’s trademark micropolyphony. The crystallisation of these sounds brings out sustained, but shifting, harmonies that are very different from traditional or atonal composition but the overall effect is ravishing. And something for which horror and sci-fi film composers ever since should be eternally grateful. It is eerie, mysterious but utterly compelling. Take the bit where the high violins, barely audible, pulse against the throb of the low brass and wind. Given the score doesn’t really offer any metre as such Francois-Xavier Roth could only really prompt the orchestra. No matter. All the LSO had to do was trust Ligeti’s ear and F-XR’s experience with the piece. How GL knew all of his innovations, not just in these micropolyphonic pieces, would work is an utter mystery to me. Genius.
It was performed by the National Youth Orchestra at this years Proms so its a fairly frequent concert hall visitor. Don’t let it pass you by.
Bartok’s Cantata profana, which was published in 1930, rarely gets an outing. Lasting only 20 minutes yet still requiring a full chorus and orchestra as well as a bass, (here William Thomas standing in for the indisposed Matthew Rose), and a very challenging high tenor part which pushed Julien Behr close to his limit. It is based on a slightly creepy, coming of age, folk ballad about nine brothers who go out hunting, turn into stags, (which I hope is a rare occurrence even in Transylvania), and then refuse to come home when Father asks them. Heady stuff which Bartok pitches somewhere between his more overtly derived folk driven orchestration and the lusher sound-world of his earlier stage works. The LS Chorus seemed entirely at home with the tricky Hungarian idiom of the text and the awkward contrapuntal textures of Bartok’s score, which divides into 8 parts in the second of the three movements..
That’s the thing with Bartok. It normally takes a few listens for me to get the gist of his music. Like Prokofiev I know there is something there worth working on but it doesn’t always reel me in immediately. I can’t always grasp the line and architecture of the whole work but the rhythms and melodies individually are often arresting. I have more work to do on the popular orchestral pieces, am close to cracking the string quartets, think the solo piano collections are fascinating and would love to see Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The piano concertos and the rest of his chamber music are bit of mystery. Whether Cantata profana on this listening will be added to the to do list is a moot point.
As an aside if you want a quick burst of Romanian folk filtered through an orchestral lens, look no further than the Concert Romanesc. By none other than Ligeti. A perfect pastiche of a C19 nationalist Romantic tribute. It is really hard to believe this is the same composer as Lontano.
Not knowing the Nelson Mass, as with any Haydn piece, is no handicap. It’s a mass, sung in Latin, so that’s the text nailed down, it is a relatively small orchestra, (just 4 double basses in the strings, trumpets, timpani and a small pipe-organ here played by Bernard Robertson), and, as usual, Papa keeps his textures homophonic and easy to follow. The Gloria ends with a mighty fugue and the Credo kicks off with an extended canon. What’s not to like? That is not to say it isn’t without drama, the LS Chorus letting fly in the Kyrie and Gloria. Julien Behr was persuasive, as was replacement bass, the ever excellent Christopher Purves. Mozart specialist Camilla Tilling’s soprano lost a little of its silky subtlety though newcomer Adele Charvet’s mezzo more than held its own. Even so there might have been a case for reigning in the 130 strong Chorus a little to offer a little light and shade.
The Nelson Mass is the third of six that Haydn composed between 1796 and 1802, appearing just after The Creation in 1798. He titled it Missa in Angustiis, “Mass in difficult circumstances”, a reference to Napoleon’s march across Europe. There is a martial quality about some of the music, in the Kyrie and Benedictus for example, but, as usual Haydn can’t suppress his jolly nature throughout. As it happens a few days before its first performance Admiral Nelson (there he is above) secured a famous victory against the French fleet at Aboukir. A couple of years later Nelson went to visit the Esterhazy court and this was performed for him; hence the nickname.
B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities).
It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance.
The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home.
O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie.
So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.
The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration. The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on). The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage.
Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium.
Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music.
You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so.
And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps.
Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”
You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation.
So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.
In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.
The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.
Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO.
The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace.
After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these).
As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.
The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).
Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub.
The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a repeated rocking motif.
This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.
The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle.
As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.
That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).
While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire.
London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Peter Moore (trombone)
Barbican Hall, 1st November 2018
Zoltan Kodaly – Dances of Galanta
James MacMillan – Trombone Concerto
Dmitry Shostakovitch – Symphony No 4
Now it might be the fact that I was a bit poorly for this performance that accounts for this lukewarm response. No need for any of you to worry. I am in fine fettle now but whatever bug it was prevented me from seeing the evening devoted to the electronic and chamber work of Iannis Xenakis at Kings Place a couple of days later, which was REALLY BLOODY ANNOYING since I am much taken with the composer and the performers, (London Sinfonietta with cellist Tim Gill who was in the hot seat for solo piece Kottos and Phlegra for 11 musicians). There is nothing quite like the sound world of Xenakis. Give him a whirl. YOLO.
The Fourth is a tricky customer. In complete contrast to the more conformist, (though still painful howl of protest), that is the Fifth, this symphony has DSCH still messing around with his avant-garde roots. That is not to say that it isn’t recognisably his voice, just that it is a long way away from the inventive Stravinskian juvenalia of the First and the awful, garish, empty patriotic posturing of the Second and Third. The Fourth is chock full of brilliant, if eccentric, ideas but isn’t too bothered with the usual rules of symphonic structure. It was written in 1936, when he was 30, the year DSCH got his telling off from Stalin. It was rehearsed but then withdrawn to be finally premiered in 1961 when Stalin and Zhdanov were safely in their graves. It has two massive movements embracing a scherzo, a giant 100 plus orchestra, lots of distorted songs and dances, excesses of aggression and pathos. Mahler removed from the mountains and marched at gun-point into the factory.
It is very tricky for conductor and composer to knit all of the twist and turns, (and musical cul-de-sacs, of which there are many), together and Mr Noseda didn’t quite find his compass on this evening. This, together with my man-flu, meant I drifted in and out a bit through the 70 minutes of performance, despite the volume. Not so with James MacMillan’s Trombone Concerto. This is the first time I have heard any of his music. surprising given that he is a favourite commissionee with British orchestras. This was the UK premiere of this work with Peter Moore, the Co-Principal trombone in the LSO, as the soloist. Now young Mr Moore, just 22, is something of a prodigy, haven’t taken his chair at just 18. His breakthrough came when he won the BBC Young Musician competition aged just 12, and in a few short years he has become a renowned soloist and is a visiting prof at the RCM. There he is above, winning the BBC contest. Awwh sweet.
Now I am no expert on the trombone, (or on any instrument come to think of it), but I have ears so can tell you that Mr Moore knows what he is about trombone-wise. Wind soloists are generally remarkable people as their technical prowess and control reveals just what their instruments are capable of playing. Mr MacMillan’s concerto is a single movement work which alternates between frenetic activity and “ghostly” passages drawn from the seven note theme which is set out at the start. The soloist’s line is set against this through the slower first passage and again, in bursts, as the pace hots up. A “waltz” of sorts follows, then a rush forward punctuated by the three orchestral trombones joining Mr Moore in a blast alongside, of all things, a siren. There might have been a wind machine as well. A slower, more lyrical swell follows then a kind of mad gigue before a jam from the four trombones again.
As ever, all you can do on hearing a piece of contemporary classical music for the first time is see if it grabs you, and this most certainly did. Maybe it was the novelty of hearing what was possible with a trombone, though Daddy Mozart and Brother Haydn, alongside Berio, Xenakis, Turnage and, of course, Christian Lindberg, have all shown me this in other works, or maybe it was just Peter Moore’s amazing skill, but I do think there was enough here to mean I should look into Mr MacMillan’s back, and in future, front catalogue.
The other piece on the menu was Kodaly’s Dances Of Galanta, a kind of augmented string suite, written in 1933 and based on Hungarian dance tunes. It has its fans I gather but I can now say I am not one of them. Having not really connected with Kodaly’s string quartets I think I can safely say that he is not for me even as his mate, Bela Bartok, especially in his 6 string quartets, most certainly is.
It has been a long time coming. This co-production, together with the Met and the Dutch National Opera, is the first time it has appeared on the Coliseum stage. The re-written version, with book by Suzanne Lori-Parks, (which attracted the ire of Stephen Sondheim no less), popped up at the Open Air Theatre a few years ago and I gather that Welsh National Opera staged the Cape Town Opera production transcribed to South Africa in 2009. Prior to that I believe you have to go back to Trevor Nunn’s various tilts, at Glyndebourne in 1986, the Royal Opera House in 1992 and the less than successful musical theatre version, with speech replacing recitative, from 2006 at the Savoy. (Which, I have surmised, was what my special guests for this evening BUD and KCK, must have seen).
You’d think with all those tunes it would be a far more regular feature. On the other hand, one look at the set, and the massed cast at the opening of this production, perhaps reminds you why it is such an infrequent visitor. This must have cost a few bob. And assembling this many fine black singers from around the world, for this amount of time, will have required a patient, and skilled, logistical hand. The ENO has come under the cosh in the last few years, often unfairly in my view, so it is terrific to see that this has been a resounding critical and commercial success with standing room only across the run.
That is not so say it is perfect, at least from where the Tourist was sitting. (Nothing wrong with the view mind, though the old back was playing up a bit). The First Act does go on a bit: a fair few punters took the steamboat whistle as their cue to head to the bar. The chopping and changing of the time signatures in the jazzier parts of the score gets a bit wearing and I wouldn’t have minded if debutante conductor John Wilson has taken some passages at a greater lick. Not to say that he dawdled, just that I am all for brevity and clarity when it comes to orchestral music.
The plot and characterisation is very much of its time, Charleston in South Carolina in the 1920s. Not woke for sure. Even in the 1930s casts and creatives wrestled with the stereotypes that the opera presents. By the 1960s the opera had been pretty much consigned to the dustbin: no-one would perform it. It wasn’t just the characterisation, plot and language that vexed but also the appropriation of musical styles. In the last few decades performers have reclaimed the piece however, notably in South Africa. Ira Gershwin refused permission for the opera to be performed with white casts under apartheid as he and George had from the outset. Their stipulation for black only casts hasn’t always been maintained however, most notably by the Hungarian State Opera in their last season with a predominantly white cast, which looked, on the face of it, like a political provocation.
Having said all that I can absolutely see why the creative team, led by James Robinson AD of the Opera Theatre of St Louis, on his ENO debut, have played this absolutely straight, (and I suspect they always had one eye on the reception from the punters at the Met). Putting the condescension to one side, the characters in Porgy and Bess, even if there are probably too many, are more emotionally rounded than in most opera, and the drama, with its mythic underpinning, more engaging. This in large part reflects the work of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward from whose play and book the story is taken. That doesn’t mean it is without flaw however. Porgy’s seeming accommodation of his poverty and disability, Bess’s total lack of agency and final descent: these require a great deal more exploration than the few lines that opera can offer, especially one where so many other voices are heard. And Gershwin’s music as it slips from folk to jazz to blues to gospel to spiritual to, very obviously in the melodies of some big songs, his own Jewish heritage, doesn’t always match up to the psychology of the character. Say what you like about Mozart and Da Ponte’s plots, when words fall short and music needed to take over, Wolfgang was your man.
George Gershwin’s ability to mix popular, musical theatre with high art classical composition is there from the very beginning of the piece. The jazzy theme for full orchestra that emerges from the frenetic opening, with the entire cast on stage, drops down to a simple piano roll. Then Clara emerges and launches into you know what. If there has ever been a tune that more defines time and place in musical theatre, the bluesy Summertime is it. It’s hot, we are on Catfish Row and, for a lullaby about protecting the child, there is something infinitely sad about it. Which of course there is when it subsequently re-appears later on before the murder of Robbins by Crown and after the fatal storm.
Up to now George and lyricist brother Ira had delivered Broadway musical but George was determined to filter this through European classical modernism to create a unique American opera style, just as Bernstein would in the following decades. They must have got something right in this their operatic debut. The programme mentions an estimate of 25,000 version of Summertime. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and The Fun Boy Three in my library. From there on, for all the twist and turns of the music when it stands alone or supports the recitative (and kind of arioso), for all of the musical call-forwards, call-backs and motifs it is the songs and arias that the audience came to hear. Gone, Gone Gone, spirituals My Man’s Gone Now and It Take A Long Pull To Get There, It Ain’t Necessarily So, love duet Bess You Is My Woman Now,, Oh Doctor Jesus, Oh Lawd I’m On My Way., even banjo song I Got Plenty of Nuttin’. Hard not to be carried away by that lot.
I have said before that I am not up to the task of commenting on the technical skill of the performers and, for me, acting in opera is as important as singing. If I had to pick out individuals then I would plump for Eric Greene’s rich, powerful baritone voice, which builds through the evening, and the poignancy he brings to Porgy. Nadine Benjamin’s sweet, sensitive Clara and Frederick Ballentine’s oily Sportin’ Life also stood out and I was taken with, at our performance, Gweneth-Ann Rand’s noble Serena and Tichina Vaughn’s gritty (acting not voice!) Maria. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s Bess was a little too reticent at times and Nmon Ford’s Crown, complete with rippling torso, a little too brisk, but what do I know. It is though when the chorus and orchestra come together in the big set-pieces, the fights, the murder, the funeral, the prayer-meetings, when the opera really takes off, and this chorus drawn from as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, was as good as I have heard anywhere. This was when I got the “opera buzz”. I am looking forward to the War Requiem that will follow at the ENO from this chorus.
For all the story-telling, playing, singing and dancing (courtesy of Dianne McIntyre) though, it was the look of the production that was perhaps the best thing about it. The set from legendary American designer Michael Yeargan, gives us the the bare bones of the Catfish Row tenements. The flesh then comes from another legend, lighting designer Donald Holder and the video design of our own Luke Halls, who is about the best in the business. No innovative representation or symbolism here. Sun, rain, water, daybreak, twilight, moonlight, quick time, slow time, public space, private space. All were vividly imagined. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are equally effective. Wheeling out the best of Broadway and pooling the budgets of the three producing houses has paid dividends handsomely. Even the SO to whom plot is everything was bowled over by the look as were keen companions BUD and KCK. We definitely got our money’s worth.
I see that I have a recording of Porgy and Bess, the LPO under Simon Rattle. I don’t listen to it though. I do listen to Miles Davis’ instrumental versions though, which are all over the shop. Not sure what that means. Essence of trumpet maybe.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director)
Milton Court Concert Hall, 22nd October 2018
Symphony No 39 in E flat major K543
Symphony No 40 in G minor K550
Symphony No 41 “Jupiter” in C major K551
If you don’t know the Australian Chamber Orchestra then you should. I don’t mean personally one by one. Though I am sure that the 17 permanent members are all excellent people. No I mean that if you have any interest in classical music, or in music generally, for under their director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, they cast their net pretty widely for a classical band, you should find a way to see, and hear, them. In their chosen repertoire, primarily large chamber and small orchestral works, whether original scores or those adapted by the mercurial Mr Tognetti, they are well nigh unbeatable, I reckon. It’s the combination of scholarship, musicianship and enthusiasm you see.
There were magnificent last year in the concert I attended (Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****) and there were again this evening. Only this time they had expanded their strings core with more strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion drawn from various other ensembles to perform Mozart’s last 3 symphonies, which I defy anyone not to accept are amongst the finest pieces of music ever composed. And the biggest treat for me. The presence of MS whose intellectual and cultural curiosity knows no bounds, but who has been way too infrequent a companion for me at classical concerts. Let us just say that, by the end of the Jupiter, my boy was hooked.
There is plenty of Mozart that passes me by, too nice and too many notes. But not these symphonies, the da Ponte operas, the later piano concertos, the famous wind chamber pieces and various string quartets and quintets. After all you would have to be made of stone not to connect to this. These last three symphonies however are something else because they seem to operate on a higher musical and emotional level. Written in 1788, over a period of just six weeks, we don’t now who they were written for or where they were intended to be performed. His Dad Leopold, who was a big of a control freak by all accounts, had died the prior year. In the last couple of years of his life, Wolfgang was pretty poorly and reduced to begging from mates, but at the time of the composition of the symphonies, he had a decent income from his work at the Viennese Court, his and Constanza were happy and his operas had been a storming success in Prague. I don’t have too much truck with biographical or genius theories of creativity but I think these symphonies, whilst challenging on places, are pretty jolly overall, and there is enough invention to suggest that Wolfgang didn’t just download from brain to stave, however rapid their formation.
39 kicks off with a slow intro a la Haydn but soon perks up as it shifts to a cantilena with trumpets, timpani and descending strings. The second subject is softer, led by clarinets. The slow movement starts tentatively but then gets into a trademark groove as strings and winds each take the lead across three different themes, again with clarinets and bassoons, getting a workout. You might well know the minuet and trio tunes, (even if you don’t as is so often the case with WAM), and you certainly should know the Allegro finale which is as resolutely upbeat as anything he composed. It is easy to see why some smart punters reckon this was his best ever.
40, along with 25, is the only symphony in minor keys, and it is the use of clarinets once again which sticks in the ear (and mind). The Allegro opening, with the violin tune, two quaver, one crotchet, underpinned by pulsing violas, is another WAM classic, only he could have written it. There is a second theme, but you barely register it, such is the brilliance with which this opening tune is tweaked. Violas kick off the slow movement as well but here there are tics and tremors that point to what would have happened if WAM had managed a couple more decades. The minuet that wraps around the trio in the next movement also has its dissonant moments and the final Allegro really breaks the mould, famously, with its twelve note “serial” theme.
Apparently 41 was unperformed during WAM’s remaining 3 years, and it was a few decades before the world caught up. No clarinets here, oboes and bassoons get to do the wind work, and using the triumphal key of C major. Surely it is no coincidence that Beethoven kicked off his symphonic career in this key. The Tourist yields to no man (or woman) when it comes to the all time greatest, that’s LvB, but with 41 at least I get why some favour Wolfgang. From the jokey military demeanour of the opening movement through sweet mystery of the Andante, to the deceptively simple dance movement and into that “fugal” finale, which is as good as it gets, it is a marvel. Five themes, all magically locked together, by the end. There it is above. Seems so simple doesn’t it. It doesn’t sound it though.
It certainly pumped up MS as I said, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, wasn’t in the mood to hold back. Richard Tognetti is known for the drama and intensity he brings to performance and the ensemble, including guests, rehearses to within an inch of their lives as far as I can hear. The strings, literally, play as one and their is no room for any mawkish vibrato. HIP on mostly modern strings with period winds and brass suits me. The tempi are quick throughout and the phrasing is muscular. Right up my street. Mr Tognetti and the band have been playing the last three for over 25 years. I reckon they’ve nailed it.